18 March 2011

Imposing a Libyan No-Fly Zone

Libyan MiG 23s Dominated by British Typhoon and French Rafale Fighter Jets. While Libya’s legacy airplanes being trounced by modern Eurofighters is the maker of a headline, such aerial skirmishes are only the prick of a No-Fly Zone.

To impose one, a coordinated multi-national operation involving attacks against Surface to Air Missile (SAM) sites, Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) sites, Libyan airfields, Command and Control nodes, and radar installations, must occur. Each sortie requires battle damage assessment and possible re-attack. The attacking fighter-bombers require support by bombers, electronic attack aircraft, surveillance aircraft, command and control aircraft, refueling tankers, transport planes, passenger aircraft and unmanned drones. Helicopters with search and rescue teams wait, ready to scoop up any pilot forced to eject. Each plane is supported by ground crews from weaponeers to maintainers, who are supported by another legion of support. All this is coordinated by competing European, Arab League and US generals.

But prior to such efforts, civilian leadership will specify goals. US President Barack Obama, speaking at 2:30 this afternoon, said the United States wishes to protect the innocent civilians of Libya. He intends to do so with air operations—and notes that the goal is focused, cause is just, and coalition is strong. These words accurately reflect US intentions and stance. (With Libya's oil production and geopolitical role minor, this operation is indeed humanitarian.) With this goal matching those of UN member states, intervention begins.

Before any coalition planes pass within 200 miles of Libya and range of their SAM-5 air defenses, intelligence will be refined to verify their location, the distance between the military target and nearby civilians, and possible rebel rather than Ghaddafi control. As an immobile system, much of this collection has already occurred. Cruise missiles will be launched and these defenses destroyed.

With Libya's long-range SAM defenses neutralized, combat fighter patrols, surveillance E-3 JSTARS, and command and control E-8 AWACS, will orbit near the coast. The latter two probably US owned, flying out of Italian air bases.

Suppression of Libyan air defenses will continue. Now or later Libyan fighters may attempt attacking coalition aircraft, which will prove hopeless. The Libyan pilot's best defense, while attempting to engage an enemy that can target him with an AIM-120 missile before he knows the threat even exists, will be exploiting coalition rules of engagement. As this Libyan threat is swatted, attacks on other air defenses, notably SAM-2, SAM-3 and AAA, will be launched from orbiting fighter bombers. With these Libyan air defenses numbering in the hundreds and mobile, a coordinated intelligence effort will be required for their destruction—a herculean and ultimately impossible task. Simultaneously, Libya's air-defense command and control structure, consisting of bunkers and their communication networks, will be targeted. Complicating that effort will be fear of civilian casualties and accurate assessment of battle damage. So too, airfields and grounded military aircraft will be targeted, with many of the same challenges.

Frustrating and handicapping coalition efforts, will be Libya's response to imposition of the no-fly zone. Like misleading claims made today of ceasefire, Libya will implicate, deviate and prevaricate for any advantage. While the demand that Libyan aircraft stay grounded is focused, the challenge is altogether multitudinous.

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